Back to the future of 1948

A new research contends that by settling in East Jerusalem, nationalist Jewish groups are undermining Israel’s claims to West Jerusalem.

jerusalem (photo credit: Yossi Zamir / FLASH 90)
(photo credit: Yossi Zamir / FLASH 90)
EVERY FRIDAY AFTERNOON, for just over a year, dozens, sometimes hundreds, of protesters gather in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah together with Palestinians expelled by the Israeli Supreme Court from their nearby homes. Secular and religious, Jewish and Palestinian, the protesters link hands and stand together to protest the “immorality of the Judaization” of the Palestinian areas of the city.
A recently released report contends that, morality or immorality aside, Jewish settlement in Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem threatens Israel’s own best interests. In “The Sheikh Jarrah Affair: Strategic Implications of Jewish Settlement in an Arab Neighborhood in East Jerusalem,” Professor Yitzhak Reiter and researcher Lior Lehrs of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (JIIS), an independent think tank, warn that “permitting Jewish settlement in Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem like Sheikh Jarrah… may eventually lead to Israel’s loss of sovereignty over Jerusalem.”
“Such settlement should be stopped – and the sooner the better – if the Israeli government truly cares about Jerusalem,” Reiter warns in an interview with The Jerusalem Report. “This settlement will contribute to the delegitimization of Israel in world public opinion. It will undermine the existence of Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and Israeli rights to the sites in the Old City and Holy Basin.
“Israel has always been careful to couch the question of Jerusalem against the background of the 1967 Six Day War,” Reiter continues. Settling in neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah, which were lost by Israel in the War of Independence, opens up the unresolved issues of 1948 and leaves Israel vulnerable to new demands by Palestinian former residents of West Jerusalem for their ‘right to return’ to their homes, too.”
Reiter and Lohrs document the extensive political, financial and logistical support that the government, police and municipality are providing for the settlers. The municipality is even currently promoting a plan to develop the neighborhood for additional Jewish residents. These policies, Reiter says, are not only shortsighted and irresponsible. They are, he contends, “proof that neither this administration nor the governments before it have ever formulated a real policy for the future of Jerusalem. The cost could be horrific.”
SHEIKH JARRAH IS a predominantly Palestinian neighborhood in northeast Jerusalem, less than a kilometer from the Mt. Scopus campuses of Hadassah Hospital and the Hebrew University, close to numerous governmental institutions and the national headquarters of the Israel Police (which is housed in a structure the Jordanians built as a hospital but never completed). Numerous consulates and centers of international organizations have located within the neighborhood, which is just outside the sacred sites of the Holy Basin.
Sheikh Jarrah has historical significance for the national and religious identity of both Palestinians and Jews. In the final third of the 19th century, according to Reiter and Lohrs, members of the Muslim population began moving outside the Old City walls, and affluent, eminent Muslim families constructed the grand, elegant villas that remain in the neighborhood to this day.
During the same period, a Jewish residential neighborhood was constructed around a holy Jewish site traditionally considered to be the tomb of Shimon Hatzadik, a high priest who lived in Jerusalem during the Hellenic period of the Second Temple. Next to the tomb is the Small Cave of Sanhedrin, where, according to tradition, members of the Small Sanhedrin, which was a judicial body of the Second Temple, are buried. The first mention of this site, according to Reiter and Lohrs, dates as far back as 1235. Testimonies from the Ottoman period reveal that the tomb was a regular Jewish pilgrimage destination.
In 1876, the heads of the “Sephardic Community Council” and the heads of the Ashkenazi “General Council of the Congregation of Israel,” two trusts operating in Jerusalem, united and jointly purchased the area around the tomb and cave, as well as 17.5 dunams (about 4.3 acres) located nearby. In 1890, the Sephardi council built the neighborhood of Shimon Hatzadik, intended for the poor of the community and for religious scholars. By 1916 some 45 individuals lived there in 13 households; the Ashkenazi portion of the area remained open space.
But Sheikh Jarrah was seared into modern Israeli consciousness as a result of an Arab attack on a medical convoy to Mount Scopus in April 1948, in which 78 employees of the Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital were slaughtered.
At the conclusion of the War of Independence, a form of “population exchange” took place between Israel and Jordan: Israel lost the Old City and adjacent neighborhoods, including Sheikh Jarrah, to the Jordanian Legion while capturing large areas of the city that had been previously Arab.
The Jews who were evicted from areas lost to Israel were resettled in West Jerusalem, in the homes of Palestinians who had fled the areas that Israel conquered. In 1956, the government of Jordan, in cooperation with the United Nations Relief and Works Association (UNRWA), housed 28 families of Palestinian refugees in the compound and lands in Sheikh Jarrah owned by the two Jewish trusts, which, since 1948, had been managed by the Jordanian “Custodian of Enemy Property.”
Following the Six Day War, the neighborhoods changed sovereignty again, as Israel retook East Jerusalem and implemented Israeli law, jurisdiction and administration there.
In 1972 and again in 1982, Israeli courts recognized and reaffirmed the property rights of the two trusts. At the same time, they accorded the Palestinian residents the status of “protected tenants” – a status that, according to Israeli law, is inviolate save for two conditions – negligence in payment of rent and illegal construction on the property. Yet the Palestinian tenants, apparently out of refusal to recognize Israeli rule and Israeli courts, refused to pay rent and renovated and expanded the properties without permission.
At some point, the trusts sold their rights to the Homot Shalem (later known as Nahalat Shimon International), a settler organization behind the Jewish presence in other areas of the city. By 1993, the settlers had begun to appeal to the Israeli courts against the families that were in violation of the terms of their contracts. In November 2008, after prolonged legal proceedings, one family was forcibly removed from its home. In August 2009, two more families, numbering some 53 individuals, were expelled. Eviction orders have been filed against additional families.
In 2008, Nahalat Shimon International submitted a plan to the Regional Committee for Planning and Construction for the demolition of the Sheikh Jarrah homes it owns in which Palestinians still live; for the removal of an additional 500 Palestinian residents from the neighborhood; and for the construction of a Jewish neighborhood there with some 200 housing units.
THE ACTIVITIES IN SHEIKH Jarrah, Reiter and Lohrs write, reflect a growing pattern of Jewish settlement in the heart of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem that are based, at least in part, on legal proceedings addressing the private property rights of Jews. Settlers have reclaimed ownership and possession in other areas as well, including Silwan in the southeast, and within the Old City, but, according to Reiter, the settlement in Sheikh Jarrah is the first effort to evict the residents of two entire compounds housing dozens of Palestinian families.
“We are here based on Israeli law,” a young Jewish resident of Shimon Hatzadik, who agrees to identify himself only as “one of the first who settled here,” tells The Jerusalem Report as he stands proudly in front of the compound. “Anyone who doesn’t agree should go and demonstrate in front of the court, not here.”
Indeed, says former Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair, the laws are on the side of the settlers – and the laws, he warns, “are evil.”
Out of political motivation and through a clever confluence of laws, including the Absentee Property Law, Ben-Yair explains, various authorities help Jews who want to get their property back in East Jerusalem, even if they’ve already received alternative property in West Jerusalem. But according to these same laws, Palestinians who own property in West Jerusalem are not allowed to reclaim it; they can only claim compensation – and even that compensation is hard to claim and “miserly,” he says.
“My family had property in Sheikh Jarrah,” Ben-Yair reveals. “By law, we still own that property. But there was a war, and we were compensated. We will not petition for the property, even though we could. It would be wrong, it would be immoral.”
And such claims, Reiter and Lohrs contend, raise the question of properties lost by both Jews and Arabs in the war and doubts about Israel’s ability to control and manage sensitive parts of the city – with its vast variety of religious and other communal interests – in a fair and sensitive manner.
“The Israeli interest in relation to refugee property is the formulation of an equation of mutual concession over property – both Palestinian and Jewish – that was lost as a result of the conflict. The reclaiming of Jewish ownership and possession rights in Sheikh Jarrah specifically, and in East Jerusalem generally, could lead to the opening of the ‘1948 files,’ inspiring and even encouraging claims for restitution of refugee properties within West Jerusalem neighborhoods,” Reiter tells The Report.
Aryeh King, a settler activist, tells The Report that he and the parties he represents, which include Irving Moskowitz, an American real estate and bingo mogul who bankrolls much of the activities of settler groups in Jerusalem, scoff at these concerns. “Let them present claims – I wish they would. According to the law in Israel, there is no way that they can obtain any property. So all this fuss about the fear that they might do the same if we continue to claim properties in the east is nonsense.”
Nadav Shragai a former journalist who now works for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a conservative-leaning think tank, tells The Report that Palestinian demands for pre-1948 properties are “nothing new. The Palestinians have never waived what they view as their right to their property. They have raised and will continue to raise this issue in every negotiation. And so neither Shimon Hatzadik nor any other residence in any other similar area is the problem.”
Furthermore, says Shragai, “there can be no symmetry between the aggressor and the victim. Since the aggressor killed Jews, refused to accept the partition plan and was unwilling to come to terms with the establishment of the Jewish state in the Land of Israel, and began the war on the Jerusalem front in 1967, it cannot claim symmetry and equality with the side that was forced to leave its home because they were threatened and murdered and because they agreed to the UN partition plan.”
Acknowledging that world opinion does not accept Israel’s policies regarding East Jerusalem or his view of history, Shragai says heatedly, “That does not change the moral equation: We, the Jews, are the victims, not the aggressors.”
REITER ADDS THAT SETTLEMENTS in areas like Sheikh Jarrah restrict the government’s freedom of action in the event of a future agreement with the Palestinians. “If Israelis settle everywhere in East Jerusalem, it could result in a Palestinian retreat from the understandings reached in previous rounds of negotiations under the Barak and Olmert administrations regarding the ‘Clinton Parameters’ [which determine that the neighborhoods that are primarily Jewish will belong to Israel and those that are primarily Palestinian will belong to the future Palestinian state].”
In fact, says activist King, that is exactly the intention of the settlers. “The government does not care for Jerusalem as it should. Thank God, we manage to get help from well-to-do Jews around the world, who care for the Jewish people and want Jerusalem to remain under Jewish control.”
Shragai contends that research such as Reiter’s and Lohr’s is “disingenuous at best,” adding that their criticisms are valid “only if they are predicated on the idea that Jerusalem will be divided. But the people of Israel do not agree to a division of this city, which must remain Israel’s eternal capital.” Agreeing with King, he states that the numerous attempts to settle in areas such as David’s City, the Old City and Shimon Hatzadik/Sheikh Jarrah should be understood “not only as obvious and necessary, not only because of our religious or historical rights, and not only because of our property rights – but also because these activities are designed to put sticks in the wheels of the partition plans.”